Kewaunee nuclear power plant shutdown cost is nearly $1 billion 04.20.13

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Dominion Resources Inc.

A test run shows the process of moving spent nuclear fuel from the reactor to casks. The casks with spent nuclear fuel are then moved.

By Thomas Content of the Journal Sentinel

When the Kewaunee Power Station stops generating electricity next month, a new chapter in its life will open - one that could last until the 2070s and cost nearly $1 billion.

The plant operators will begin the process of decommissioning the nuclear power plant, an endeavor that aims to restore the site along Lake Michigan to what it looked like in the 1960s, before the facility was built.

Kewaunee owner Dominion Resources Inc. has announced it will shut the plant on May 7, a move that is expected to result in the loss of hundreds of jobs.

The reactor is closing because the Wisconsin utilities that had purchased its electricity declined to continue buying it, citing the low price of natural gas. Dominion put the power plant up for sale in 2011, but no buyer emerged.

So in a few short weeks, the mission of those who work at Kewaunee will change from generating power to cleaning up the power plant site.

"We've got 60 years to turn it back to a 'greenfield' site," said Mark Kanz, spokesman for Dominion. "At some point it basically has to look like the farm fields in the 1960s, before any construction started here."

As part of the decommissioning, all buildings on the 900-acre site east of Green Bay will be torn down and low-level radioactive waste will be shipped out of state.

What could remain on site for generations, however, are the concrete casks of spent nuclear fuel - the high-level radioactive waste that is changed out every 18 months when a reactor refuels.

The federal government is responsible for the cleanup of the spent fuel, meaning taxpayers will be on the hook for the cost of placing spent fuel in storage and a possible move to a long-term disposal site.

For years, federal agencies had been considering a plan to open a nuclear fuel waste repository at the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada, but the Obama administration blocked those plans.

The administration's latest plan, spelled out in a Department of Energy study, calls for construction of three or four "interim" disposal sites that would accept spent fuel from reactors around the country.

The Department of Energy's timeline indicates that it hopes to begin accepting nuclear waste from commercial reactors in 2021. That's the same timeline that Dominion has outlined in a decommissioning activities report it filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The NRC must approve Dominion's decommissioning report, agency spokeswoman Viktoria Mitlyng said.

"It's basically a blueprint for what happens between now and when that area is going to go into greenfield status, where the area is completely cleaned up and all the buildings are torn down, and all the radiological contaminants are removed," she said.

In recent years, the operator of the plant built an on-site storage area for nuclear waste on the Kewaunee site. To date, Dominion has filled eight of the 10 horizontal storage modules it has built. Dominion is examining whether to use a different design for its containers, but as it currently stands, a total of 50 of the modules will need to be filled eventually, Kanz said.

Dominion's plan calls for it to start shipping casks from Kewaunee in 2021 and continue transferring more casks each year until the process is completed in 2050.

The federal government - and taxpayer - cost for the spent fuel at Kewaunee is pegged at $342 million, or about one-third of the $920 million total cost Dominion is forecasting for the decommissioning of the reactor.

Dominion's plan will be discussed at a Nuclear Regulatory Commission meeting in Kewaunee on April 24.

Mitlyng stressed that the NRC is hosting the meeting to discuss the decommissioning plan and not debating the issue of whether the plant should close and the jobs that will be lost as a result.

"Our major concern for this meeting is that, since the decision to decommission the plant has been made, we want to make sure that the decommissioning process is conducted in a safe and thorough way," Mitlyng said.

The meeting will focus on what's expected to take place in the years ahead, beginning with what will happen next month.

One of the first activities after the power plant stops running will be to transfer that fuel into a deep pool inside the power plant, where spent fuel is stored to cool down. The pool is known as a spent fuel pool.

"The fuel that's coming out of the reactor right now is going to be too hot for a period of probably about 10 years," said Kanz. "All the fuel that has been used in Kewaunee since 1974 is still here on site. A very small amount has been moved to the dry storage site."

Dominion must also begin the process of draining large pieces of equipment of all water, which will "give some time for parts that are radioactive to decay over time," Kanz said. "That will make it safer and less expensive to decommission over time."

Customers of the utility's former owners, Wisconsin Power & Light Co. of Madison and Wisconsin Public Service Corp. of Green Bay, paid charges on their electricity bills over the years that created a decommissioning fund.

When Kewaunee was sold, that fund was transferred to Dominion, which said in a recent filing that it believes that the fund - as well as earnings on the fund money that's been invested - is sufficient to pay for the power plant's cleanup.

As for the nuclear waste costs, Dominion will spend upfront to do that work but then bill the federal government. The government has already reimbursed Dominion for costs to build the initial off-site spent fuel storage area that's outside the plant, Kanz said.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will host a public meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday to discuss and receive public comment on Dominion Resources Inc.'s plan to shut down and decommission the Kewaunee Power Station. The meeting is planned for 7-9 p.m. at the Kewaunee City Council Chambers, 401 Fifth St. in Kewaunee.